Dreaming, Working, Mourning: The Role of Teleology in Early Twentieth Century Marxism

Kathy Walker

York University


How should we, or can we, move towards our political goals?  The issue at hand is the teleological structure, the goal-orientedness of political movement.  On one hand, the stance against teleology that emerges from the Frankfurt School's critique of instrumental rationality —i.e., teleology always already involves the subjugation of the natural objective world to the thinking subject— requires that any crude means-to-ends politics be highly scrutinized.  On the other hand, any too radical turn away from end-motivated movement or any political project that loses sight of the "where to" or the "why for" constitues political paralysis.  Thus the lines are drawn, and we need to try to establish a conception of political movement that can negotiate these extremes.  Towards this task the following investigation will consider the manner in which the teleology of political movement is theorized in the work Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukacs. 

                In order to understand these various conceptualizations of the teleological—or a-teleological—structure of political movement, it will be necessary to consider the questions of the nature of our political goals, the manner in which our dreams operate within movement towards our goals, the relationship between the goals we work towards and the present in which we work, the role of agency, and the ways in which we can fail to reach our goals.  And thus it will be asked: Where to? What do we want?  Where are we?  Who are we? and How can we fail?  Through these questions it will be possible to establish an understanding of the role or nature of teleology within the work of Bloch, Benjamin and Lukacs. 

It will become clear that these three thinkers articulate a spectrum of positions.  Bloch's conception of movement, insofar as it insists on a gap between our goal and our historical existence and insofar as it argues for an asymptotic approach, is a-teleological.  Benjamin's position, focused backwards and characterized by discontinuity, is also a-teleological.  Finally Lukacs, firmly position in opposition to traditional teleology, argues for an identity between goal and approach.  It will be argued that Bloch's conception of political movement is in fact not adequately political and would be best understood as religious or spiritual movement, that Benjamin's conception of movement threatens as a melancholic attachment to the past, and that Lukacs' conception of political movement is too grounded in the historical and political and as a result is does not have a sufficiently developed conception of what motivates political work.  The situation looks grim: Bloch is a dreamer, Benjamin is too melancholic [1] , and Lukacs has no hope. While on their own each of these three theorists fails to provide an adequate conception of how to negotiate the problem of teleology within political movement, it will be argued that from each we learn of an important, crucial aspect of political movement: from Bloch we learn of hope, from Benjamin of respect for the dead, and from Lukacs of political engagement here-and-now.  In the final analysis, however, it will be argued that while Bloch and Lukacs each offer important ideas to the issue of political movement, ultimately their conceptions of political movement are inadequate.  Furthermore, it will be argued that because Benjamin takes a radical step away from the Kantian and Hegelian traditions of political philosophy, his work offers the most potential.  Benjamin's insights point the way for a theorization of a political context, which can simultaneously nurture practical historical political work and a spiritual relation to an a-historical messianic.  


Where To: The Utopia, The Messianic and The Revolution

When asking of political movement and its teleological structure an essential question regarding the place, or lack of place, to which the movement is directed, emerges.  To where is our political movement directed? Is there such an end at all?  And what is the relationship between this goal, or lack of goal, and our present situation? 

Of the three thinkers here under consideration Bloch offers the most "utopian" theory.  There is of course a sense in which any philosophy —save perhaps a critical philosophy—is utopian.  What, for example, is Plato's Republic if not an articulation of a political utopia?  However what distinguishes the utopian character of Bloch's philosophy is his explicit use of the term "utopia".  "Utopia" signifies a "no-place" [2] and thus where Plato's Republic or Marx's Communist Manifesto speak of political configurations which are understood in terms of a certain possibility, Bloch's utopia, in contrast, does not and cannot be placed in this world; it is the existence of another world.  In light of the radical alterity of Bloch's utopia it is important to consider whether it is, in fact, possible for such a messianic or utopian philosophy to be a political philosophy. [3]  

The double genitive grammatical structure of the title of Bloch's "Spirit of Utopia" provides insight into the nature of Bloch's Utopia.  First the title must be read as the utopian spirit and hence the book presents itself as an investigation into the force that propels humanity towards utopia.  In particular, this force, the utopian spirit, as a principle of hope, infects the historical age and inspires us onwards towards the utopia.  Furthermore, this force works independent of human agency, yet at the same time is nothing but humanity.  Second the title must be read in terms of utopia's spirit or the spirit that takes shape or arises once the utopia is reached; in particular the spirit of humanity revealed to itself, whereby interiority and inwardness become manifest.  In sum, Bloch's Utopia is marked precisely by a collapse of the double genitive "of" --i.e. the utopian spirit becomes the utopia's spirit.  Here, then, the subjective and the objective become identical with one another, and what is revealed to man is man.  Of the utopian as it exists in music and of the subjective/objective identification, which characterizes the utopian, Bloch writes, "the listener ultimately receives precisely only himself back." [4]  

Benjamin's Messianic, like Bloch's Utopia, is radically different from the current historical age.  Benjamin's Messianic and Bloch's Utopia both are understood to be thoroughly incommensurable with the here-and-now.  A further similarity between Benjamin's Messianic and Bloch's Utopia is that in both attaining or reaching the utopic or messianic end marks a reconciliation or recuperation.  For both Benjamin and Bloch a loss, or lack, or separation, or difference, definitive of the historical, is made good in the radical otherness of the utopian/messianic.

For Benjamin the Messianic occurs only when the absolute loss of the historical is recuperated: "To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments" [5] .  Again, it must be stressed that the recuperation must occur beyond the historic age.  We are here led to a question: What has been lost?  What is the absolute loss?  For Benjamin the loss, which is definitive of the historical age, is located in the fissure between experience and representation, between that which has occurred and its citation, or as expressed in the language of the Surrealism [6] essay, between body and image.  We in the historical age are fundamentally alienated from our own experience—our language is always a failure to represent— and this is the loss of the historical age. 

In contrast to Benjamin and Bloch's conceptions of the ends of political movement, for Lukacs, there is no utopia as a thoroughly other realm.  The radical alterity of the utopia or the messianic that is theorized the work of Bloch and Benjamin is not operative in the work of Lukacs.  For Lukacs it is, in fact, precisely this conception of an otherness, or alterity, which in failing to recognize the totality of the present, is characteristic of bourgeois thought.  For example, in Kant's philosophy the empirical 'is' and the ideal (or utopian) realm of the 'ought', are irreconcilable.  For Lukacs what is important is to perceive the social totality and furthermore this clarity of perspective and perception is itself both task and goal.  Lukacs quotes Marx, "It is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must also strive towards thought…It will then be realized that the world has long since possessed something in the form of a dream which it need only take possession of consciously, in order to possess it in reality." [7]  

                Although the politic and utopian ends of the work of Benjamin and Bloch differ from that of Lukacs in terms of the commensurability between the here-and-now and the goal or end, all three philosophies conceptualize the goal, or ungoal, in terms of a reconciliation or identity.  Bloch explicitly determines his conception of utopia as an identification between the subjective and objective.  For Benjamin the Messianic is a making good of historical loss and a closing of the gap between representation and experience. Similarly, Lukacs insisting that the end and the means of political movement are identically the revolution, and revolutionary consciousness, and that this consciousness itself marks an identification between the objective and subjective, also projects political movement towards an ultimate reconciliation.        

In terms of this ultimate reconciliation, for Bloch and Benjamin there is a sense in which the achievement of the end represents a stasis.  There is movement towards the goal, but once the goal is itself reached, the impetus for movement is gone.  Both Bloch and Benjamin conceptualize the end as thoroughly a-historical, hence a-temporal, hence not moving. In contrast, for Lukacs the goal and the way of approach need to be identical, the achievement of political goals is itself the movement towards these goals, and hence there is no final resting point. 

                For Bloch and Benjamin the goal of political movement as radically other is such that there is a fundamental, and ontological fissure between the here-and-now and the utopia/Messianic.  In this sense, in terms of its radical otherness, the goal is understood to be always out of reach.   The movement towards the utopia/Messianic is in this sense infinite.  For Bloch the goal is approached asymptotically, and for Benjamin the goal is definitively unapproachable [8] and hence for both theorists the actual, historical achievement of political goals is impossible.  In contrast, for Lukacs the goal is necessarily historical, and hence the achievement of this goal is within our grasp. 

What We Want: hope, dream, delusion  

The dream or wish plays an important role in the work of both Bloch and Benjamin.  Both theorists turn attention to the ways in which everyday, historical life is imbued or infused with articulations of our dreams.  Bloch's The Spirit of Utopia can be read as a search for the utopian spirit within historical existence.  The search begins with an encounter with a simple pitcher and continues to consider cultural configurations of increasing complexity, the plastic arts, music and finally philosophy.  Here in these cultural expressions Bloch discerns, in varying degrees, the utopian spirit.  The Spirit of Utopia sets itself the task of beginning a "fantastic journey toward the interpretation of our waking dream, toward the implementation of the central concept of utopia." [9]   Thus Bloch is not merely looking to discover the utopian spirit within the historical, he is also concerned with its implementation.  Ultimately for Bloch it is precisely this utopian spirit that in expressing that for which "it is worthy to live," [10] inspires us on towards the Utopia.  The Utopia Spirit, later to be articulated as the principle of hope, discernable as wish images in the objects and cultural configurations of historical life, is the motor that moves humanity towards its ultimate goal. 

                For Benjamin too, the dream image found in historical life is of great importance [11] .  Much of Benjamin's work is directed at an investigation into the manner in which our dreams are located in everyday life and everyday objects.  Benjamin's consideration of these dream elements is decisively dialectical.  The dream image is examined in terms of its simultaneous representation of utopian dreams and the historic nightmare.  Emphasizing the dialectical character of this investigation Benjamin writes, "the realization of dream elements in the course of waking up is the canon of dialectics." [12]   

                The Benjaminian dream image, as "dialectics at a standstill," [13] temporally speaking occupies what Benjamin names the "time of the now." [14]   It is here in this now time that the present can be encountered as "shot through with chips of Messianic time." [15]   In the dream image then, there is a radically singular and isolated—as a monad—coming together of opposites: the historical and the Messianic, the dream and the mundane, the subjective (s/he who encounters the dream image, e.g. Proust) and the objective (the materiality of the dream image, e.g. the Madeline), presence (that which we have) and absence (that which we lack, the loss). 

                In Benjamin's conception of the dream image one can detect Freudian influences.  Like the Freudian dream, Benjamin's dream images both project into the future, in terms of what we desire and wish for, and simultaneously draw on our past experiences, more specifically on our unconscious memories.  This relation to our unconscious memories, represented so well by Proust's experience with the Madeline, allows for the expression of that which does not fit within the dominant narrative (of our self identity, of our political projects, of our histories etc).  This interruption, in its radical finitude and isolation, works as a catalyst or a reminder of complexities.  It serves to remind us that the pat, well kept, positive articulation of ourselves (or our political configurations, or our collective histories) found in dominant narratives, is only part of the picture.  We are also what we have lost, and it is in the dream image that this awareness—as an invocation of a lost past, or experience—is encountered. 

                For Benjamin and for Bloch the dream, as an a dialectical image, as a wish symbol, as the utopian spirit, or as the principle of hope, functions to allow for an exchange, or collusion, or interaction, between the historical and the radical alterity of the utopia or the messianic.  While in both cases the dream allows for such an exchange the specifics of the way that this operates, are very different.  For Bloch the utopian spirit permeates, or lives as the secret inwardness of, the historical and finds expression therein.  For Benjamin the messianic interrupts, as a chip or a sliver, the historical in an isolated and radically singular "now" moment.  The difference then is the difference between a pervasive and inward permeation and an isolated, monadic interruption. 

                Lukacs here, in terms of the political significance of dreams, and wish images, takes a contrary position. For Lukacs the very structure of dreaming, insofar as it is premised on a fundamental distinction between an empirically given "is" and an ideal "ought", is exemplary of the divisive character of bourgeois false consciousness.  Rather than project ourselves into dreams and visions of an ideal future, for Lukacs it is essential that we focus our attention on objective historical conditions and on understanding how these conditions are dialectically related to our subjective consciousness.  For Lukacs it is only such an engagement with the historical that the proletariat will come to self-consciousness and this coming-to-consciousness of the proletariat is precisely the revolutionary task.  Lukacs' articulates his challenge to dreaming in his critique of the Utopians, and argues that their failure is that in their dreaming they are distracted from the truth and barred from authentically engaging with historical reality.  "They are not yet able to take note of what is happening before their very eyes and to become its mouthpiece." [16]

The question of the dream in the work of Lukacs points to a significant shortcoming of his theory.  There is no "dream" and no "wish"; for Lukacs dreams and wishes are symptomatic of the rent nature of bourgeois thought.  It is in this sense that Bloch's argument against Marx applies equally to Lukacs [17] .  According to Bloch the major oversight or shortcoming of traditional Marxism, and by extension of Lukacs, is that it lacks a conception of the "where to" and the "why for".  There is no dream of or for the future and without this, according to Bloch, we are condemned to do nothing save ameliorate material conditions of existence and for Bloch this is not enough. 

                What is the political significance of these differences?  Lukacs' critique of Bloch is helpful here:  The debate between Lukacs and Bloch is centered on the question of totality and objective reality.  For Lukacs it is essential to consider bourgeois society as a unified totality; although this society may often appear to be disintegrated and fragmented, this is only an appearance and an underlying unified reality must be understood as foundational.  The fragmentary character of bourgeois society is itself the false consciousness of capitalism.  Bloch on the other hand, in giving priority to individual interiority and subjective expression, argues that authentic reality itself is discontinuous.  Bloch writes, "Lukacs' thought takes for granted a closed and integrated reality…Whether such a totality in fact constitutes reality, is open to question…what if Lukacs' reality—a coherent, infinitely mediated totality—is not so objective after all?  What if authentic reality is also discontinuity" [18]

In terms of the question of movement and teleology, Lukacs admonishes Bloch for giving too much priority to inwardness and for neglecting objective material reality.  Bloch, according to Lukacs, focused on individual spirituality and with a gaze directed beyond the current world, fails to address the exigencies of the historical here and now.   As a result, then, Bloch loses sight of the real problems which need to be addressed in order to improve the condition of humanity.  According to Lukacs, Bloch's theory is too dreamy, too idealistic, and insufficiently grounded in real practical material problems.  According to this critique then, Bloch's theory can be understood as threatening with too much teleology, too much goal and not enough concern for the here-and-now.    If we have our sights focused on far away dreamlands then we run the risk of over looking problems that need to be address in the present. 

Lukacs admonishes Bloch for an inability to recognize the fragmentary nature of bourgeois consciousness as false consciousness.  Now, Benjamin's conception of the dream image is also framed by a prioritization of the fragment.  For Benjamin the radically singular, isolated and monadic "now" moment is the dream image.  And so we are led to ask, Does Benjamin's conception of the dream image fall to Lukacs' critique of Bloch? 

                For Bloch, fragmentation defines the historical and thus only a subjective expression is possible. For Benjamin, too, an incompleteness or lack of totality defines the historical.  However, for Benjamin this incompleteness is encountered in sliver-like moments, and therefore need not be the end of the story.  Which is to say that the Benjaminian dialectical image or dream image, can function as a reminder.  It interrupts the everyday, but only for an instant.  Our encounter with the dream image does not stand on its own but rather must function with the dialectics of dream and awakening and thus the dream interpretation that occurs when we are awake is essential [19] .  We encounter a dream image, and in this encounter recognize the profound loss of the everyday, and this encounter with loss is simultaneously a negative encounter with an authentic totality, which can in turn be carried over to work—as a mourning work and as an organization of pessimism [20] —within the everyday.   While the dream image bears a potential efficacy to inspire historical political projects (such as strikes, or demonstrations, or lobby efforts), it must be noted that the mechanics of this potential are not theorized by Benjamin. 

                More generally, Lukacs' critique of Bloch expresses the political paralysis that results from Bloch's theory.  If it is in subjective expression that the utopian spirit is manifest, and if this is the sole motor of our movement towards utopia, then there is no hope for a collective political endeavors to ameliorate our historical existence here and now.  Again the difference between permeation and interruption is essential in an attempt to discern Benjamin's relation to this critique.  Since for Benjamin the dream image is only a sliver-like moment it operates more as a reminder than as a methodology for historical life.  Which is to say, Benjamin's dream image is not a methodology for political projects, nor does it suggest that only rummaging around in shopping malls is a valid political work.  On the contrary, Benjamin's dream image as interruption must be understood as operating within larger—though not total—contexts.  The dream image interrupts as a reminder, can serve as a sort of "systems check", and if necessary serve to redirect our historical projects.  Rather than let our historical and political projects get carried away with delusions of false totalities (as in the "aesthetic politics" [21] of National Socialism), the dialectic image is a reminder that we are not there yet. 

For Bloch, the fragmentary character of consciousness is consistent. In contrast, for Benjamin, the dream image allows for both an encounter with the false consciousness and with —albeit only negatively in terms of loss—an authentic consciousness.  Furthermore, for Benjamin there is simultaneously an engagement with the fragment and with the larger social context (again not the messianic whole).  The benjaminian structure of interruption, specifically as it is an encounter with loss, and hence a negative encounter with the whole, thus allows for an engagement with false and true consciousness, with fragmentation and totality.  It is in this sense that Benjamin does not fall to Lukacs' critique of Bloch.  

Where we are: the here and now

                Any investigation into political movement needs to consider the here from which we are moving.  If movement projects us elsewhere, to a utopia, to the messianic, or towards an enlightenment, what characterizes the here and the now, and how does it stand in relation to this movement? 

Bloch is highly critical of the crude materialism he understands to be characteristic of traditional Marxism.  Marxism, according to Bloch, is too much focused on material present at the expense of a sense of the reasons why change and the amelioration of life are important. Bloch argues that for Marx "all that matters is always just the next step" [22] and that in Marxism "…the economy has been sublated but soul, faith, for which room must be made, are lacking…." [23]   Given Bloch's critique of Marxist materialism it is tempting to cast Bloch as a thorough idealist. This, however, would be a mistake.  While Bloch recognizes and in fact insists on the necessity for spiritual ideas—i.e. the utopian spirit, or the principle of hope—Bloch does not completely shirk concerns for the material historical present.  Firstly, Bloch acknowledges that the route towards utopia must be grounded in the material, physical and organic: "We are the wanderers; it is our coming and going that occurs within things.  Or, rather, the trip has already begun materially, and we live within this time, physically and organically…." [24]   Secondly, Bloch argues that it is precisely in the material and historical that our spiritual ideals, the utopian spirit, our hopes and our dreams are located.  It is because of his belief in this relation between material and cultural history that Bloch's work focuses on artifacts, art and the history of philosophy.  Thus although Bloch's relationship to materialism thus differs from traditional Marxism in that it de-emphasizes a concern for crude need and in lieu valorizes spiritual needs, Bloch maintains the importance of history and materiality.  For Bloch it is in the historical and the material itself that spirituality is located. 

For Benjamin, engagement with the historical, everyday and the material present is essential.  Benjamin argues that we cannot authentically direct ourselves towards our future goals but rather that we must focus on and engage with the historical, the material, and the everyday.  Furthermore as the organization of pessimism, this engagement must involve an awareness of lack, of loss, of past oppression and of alienation.  Benjamin offers several related articulations this essential engagement, the dialectics of historical materialism, the encounter with the dream image and profane illumination. 

                The historical materialist engages with historical objects as they represent a past that is in danger of disappearance and similarly,  such objects, according to Benjamin, bear revolutionary energy [25] , which is located precisely in the loss they represent.  A historical object via a dialectical convergence, speaks directly to the historical materialist and the concerns of his/her present.  In so doing the historical object, presents the difference between idealized histories that offer a total picture of the past as "it really was" and the fragmented, precarious past of our oppressed ancestors, offers a challenge to the established historical narratives and thus offer a revolutionary force in their ability to "brush history against the grain." [26]  

Benjamin's Arcades project as a gallery of people, places, and things, presents a detailed engagement with the commodity.  Here the commodity is met as a dream or wish image.  The commodity represents the dream, calls up the dialectics of dream and awakening and in so doing, reveals both the spurious nature of the commodity, and negatively, the authentic dream or messianic.   A dress as a dream image, for example, presents the fetishistic character of the commodity and thus in turn a sense of our alienation from our proper desire.

Benjamin's discussion of Proust further articulates the importance of a material engagement with the here and now.  Proust's madeleine is a dialectic or dream image that sets Proust off into the pursuit of his lost past.  Essential to Proust's encounter with this dialectical image is a purely material encounter with the cookie. It was the very taste of the cookie—its matter against the tongue— that inspired Proust.  A mere description or image of a cookie would not have had the same force.  It is through the pure materiality of the cookie that the merely rational, conscious or contemplative [27] can be transcended.  In so doing the unconscious memory is encountered and this allows for an interruption of the continuum of rational consciousness. 

Profane Illumination, like the historical materialist's encounter with the historical object, and like the encounter with the dream image, operates dialectically.  Here, everyday objects or events are encountered both in their everydayness and in so far as they speak to something (the messianic) radically impenetrable or other, i.e., the everyday is perceived as impenetrable and the impenetrable as everyday.  Profane illumination is focused on everyday objects through which it is able to "penetrate the mystery." [28]   Unlike the dreamer, the opium eater and the ecstatic who are removed from the actual profane world, the practionners of profane illumination, the reader, the thinker, the flaneur [29] are steadfast in their engagement with the everyday

Thus for Benjamin the historical is peppered with isolated moments, images, objects that interrupt the banal and offer insight into the Messianic.  These radically singular moments are not revolutionary merely in virtue of their formal ability to interrupt the false consciousness of historical life, but they also serve to direct and inspire our work within the historical.  Again Proust is exemplary.  It is not enough that Proust eats a cookie and then has an epiphany; rather, what is essential is that Proust's experience with the cookie inspires his creative work. 

Unlike Bloch and Benjamin, Lukacs takes a more traditionally Marxist approach to engagement with the here and now.  For Lukacs an engagement with historical and material present is essential for revolutionary change.  However, for Lukacs this engagement should be focused on economic structures. In fact, for Lukacs, it is precisely because capitalist society presents itself economically that we are able to understand, and thus deal with, the structures that need to be overcome.  Medieval society, in contrast, did not understand itself, or present itself economically and as a result the structures against which revolutionary change must be directed, were occluded. 

                For Lukacs, the material present can be understood as such, i.e. as "material", or further, as "objective", only from the position of bourgeois thought.  As discussed, for Lukacs bourgeois thought operates on the basis of a fundamental distinction between the empirically given and an ideal.  Bourgeois thought is fundamentally dualistic and hence materiality and ideology are at odds with one another. The revolutionary task is to understand how everything is related within a social, economic, and political whole.  Thus materiality must be understood in terms of ideology and vice-versa.  An engagement with the objective and material conditions is essential, but it must be framed by an understanding of its relation to ideology.  In fact, it is precisely the objective condition of bourgeois society that determines the bourgeoisie's false consciousness.  An awareness of the dialectical interrelatedness between materiality and ideology is essential in order to break out of false consciousness.  For Lukacs, our understanding of history must not take history to be an external or objective force.  Rather, we must recognize history to be both objectively and subjectively determined.  The proletariat must recognize his/her own agency in the construction of history. 

For all three thinkers the historical, material here-and-now is a crucial site of revolutionary energy.  Bloch and Benjamin, attend to everyday cultural objects, whereas Lukacs is more concerned with economic relations and structures.  This difference is based on the fact that for Lukacs only via a recognition of a totality is there a way out of false consciousness, and that, for both Bloch and Benjamin, fragmentation itself defines the historical.  For Bloch and Benjamin, the utopia or the messianic is radically other than the historical and, thus, there is no overcoming of false consciousness from within the historical.  For Bloch, the best we can do from within the historical is to discover and express utopian hope, which will then inspire us towards the utopia.  For Benjamin, our engagement within the historic age is predominantly theorized in terms of a recognition of loss and hence can be understood as, at best, a work of mourning [30] , at worst a melancholic [31] , vengeful [32] attachment to loss.  For Lukacs, our work in the here and now, as the work towards the self-consciousness of the proletariat class, must be focused on understanding of the social, economic and political whole. 

Who and How: The question of agency

The question of the role of human agency in the movement towards utopia asks whether a utopian society can be achieved via human endeavor. This questioning will work from the assumption that in order for such movement to be considered a political movement, there must be some conception of human agency.  The utopian theory [33] of Fourier for example, presenting a deterministic conception of historical change, would not here be considered political. 

The question of agency is crucial in defining the political character of Bloch's philosophy.  If human agency is completely irrelevant for Bloch, then his philosophy would be better understood not as political but rather as religious and faith-based.  On one hand, for Bloch human agency does not bring about utopia rather the utopia occurs independent of humanity, "…a great moment has now ripened" [34] and "There is something else forcing us to become very vital." [35]   However, on the other hand, for Bloch the movement towards utopia can only occur in a human context.  Thus, "So nothing here may sound by itself, then.  Only in us can it blossom and awaken… As surely as intoxication is not in the wine but in the soul…." [36]   In sum, while it is the case that for Bloch human agency is not the catalyst or engine of the movement towards utopia it is nonetheless the case that this movement cannot occur without humanity.  Further to this, it is essential to note that for Bloch, as it is through subjective expression that the utopian spirit is articulated, the agent of historical or political change is not a class or collective, but rather the individual.  

Benjamin's conception of historical or political agency can be discerned in three figures: the political artist (e.g. Proust, Kafka), the flaneur, and the historical materialist. The political artist, i.e. the artist who makes political art as opposed to pushing aesthetic politics, engages with historical loss and creates art that challenges any image of false totality.  Proust for example, in A la recherché du temps perdu, engages with the loss of forgetting, a loss which, for Benjamin, is historically definitive. In this regard Benjamin argues,  "Is not the involuntary recollection, Proust's memoire involontaire, much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory?" [37]   According to Benjamin, this type of art, in so far as it challenges the illusions of false totality and completeness offered up by dominant political narratives, has critical and revolutionary importance. 

                  When considering the role of human agency in Benjamin's philosophy it is tempting to take the "flaneur" as the paradigmatic benjaminian actor and argue that Benjamin, prioritizing distraction, wandering, rummaging around with commodities, getting lost, etc., liquidates human agency.  Such a reading makes two errors.  Firstly, it fails to recognize that the flaneur is, for Benjamin, as much as for us, a historical character, a character who, must be understood dialectically.  The flaneur, just dreaming, swept away in dalliance and awed by the spectacle of the commodities, represents or signifies bourgeois false consciousness and thus here the flaneur, negatively, speaks of an authentic consciousness.  Secondly, it fails to appreciate that the benjaminian conception of distraction while a challenge to uncritical awe-struck contemplation, does not foreclose on rational thought.  Thus the flaneur's ability to be affected by the external social world, his ability to engage with dialectical/dream images and to then be re-directed, must be understood as an authentic political engagement [38] .  Human agency, for Benjamin, cannot be a merely contemplative project, whereby one fixates on and uncritically moves towards a goal.  In lieu, it is essential that we are distracted, but here distraction is not meant as the false consciousness indulgence in thoughtless entertainment (à la Adorno and Horkheimer on the Culture Industry) but rather as the possibility of being affected by things, events, object, and/or people in the everyday world.   

                In addition to the political artist and the flaneur, the historical materialist is an essential figure in Benjamin's conception of historical and political agency.  The task of the historical materialist, similar to the task of dream interpretation, is a dialectical work.  The historical materialist understands the manner in which a particular past speaks to a particular present and the mechanics of "telescoping" "the past through the present." [39]   Furthermore, with an appreciation for the historically definitive loss, the historical materialist engages with the past as it threatens to be forgotten and disappear.  Rescuing discreet moments of material history, the historical materialist is able to "brush history against the grain" [40] and challenge the false histories presented by historicism [41] .  Again, this challenge to dominant narrative need not be read as a thorough dispersion; rather, the historical materialist provides critical fodder and in his/her engagement with a fundamental historical loss serves to remind us of the work yet to be done. 

The true political agent, according to Lukacs is, and can only be, the proletariat class. "Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism." [42]   The sources and locus of revolutionary change rests in the ability of the proletariat to recognize the social whole.  Since bourgeois consciousness is definitively divided [43] it is incapable of recognizing the identity between the subjective and the objective, and hence is fundamentally blind to any recognition of totality.  This capacity to recognize the interrelatedness of the subjective and objective belongs exclusively to the proletariat.  Lukacs writes, "…the superiority of the proletariat must lie exclusively in its ability to see society from the center, as a coherent whole.  This means that it is able to act in such a way as to change reality; in the class consciousness of the proletariat theory and practice coincide…." [44]

Lukacs argues that dialectics must be the source of social and political movement. "Even more to the point is the need to discover those feature and definitions both of the theory, the dialectical method, into a vehicle of revolution." [45] He further argues that dialectics itself is premised on the totality of the social and political:  "…dialectics insists on the concrete unity of the whole." [46]   Thus only when the proletariat functions as a class in relation to the complete social context, i.e. dialectically recognizing the objective world as itself, does it engage in meaningful political work.  Mere individual action, or subjective agency, insofar as it fails to engage with social and historical dialectics, and in so far as it does not recognize the larger context of its social position, i.e., its class, is not the agent of revolutionary change. 

The goal of the political agent, the proletariat class, is to gain a more authentic perception of facts and events, in particular to recognize the relation between a specific event or fact and the larger total context.  A recognition of the total context involves realizing that things are not just 'given' but rather that they emerge from and grow out of social and political structures.    "In order to progress from these 'facts' to facts in the true meaning of the word it is necessary to perceive their historical conditioning as such and to abandon the point of view that would see them as immediately given." [47]   Thus for Lukacs it is precisely the task of the historical and political agent, i.e., the proletariat, to recognize its own agency. 

                  To summarize, for Bloch human agency will not lead us to a social utopia. Rather, it is the spirit of utopia that propels us forwards.  The role of human agency is limited to the subjective and artistic expression of the utopian spirit.  For Benjamin, human agency is understood in terms of the individual dialectical practitioner, the political artist, the flaneur and the historical materialist, all characters who are capable of discerning the fundamental loss of the historical age, and thus of presenting a challenge to illusions of false totalities.  For Lukacs, unlike for Bloch and Benjamin, the site of political agency is not located in the individual but rather in the proletariat class.  Again, as discussed above, the significant difference between Bloch and Benjamin on one hand and Lukacs on the other, is based on the question of the nature of the historical and its relationship to its own end, and on the question of totality.  For Bloch and Benjamin the historical is definitively incomplete and fragmented and thus it follows that any conception of a total or whole class-consciousness must be spurious.  For Lukacs, in contrast, it is bourgeois consciousness and not the historical itself which is fragmented and, thus, a prioritization of the individual political actor must be understood as bourgeois and anti-revolutionary. 

                Due to the fact that for Bloch human agency plays a limited role in the movement towards the utopia, Bloch's conception of movement should not be characterized as political movement.  The spiritual and esoteric nature of Bloch's theory of movement insists that his philosophy be understood not as political but rather as spiritual or religious.  Here Lukacs, arguing that the political agency of the proletariat is the only source of historical change, is positioned in complete opposition to Bloch.  But what of Benjamin's conception of movement?  Can the movement theorized by Benjamin be understood as political or must it, like that of Bloch, be understood as religious?  I would suggest that Benjamin's conception of movement is in fact a dialectical synthesis of both the political and the religious.  There are essential political moments that must be made good, and it is with this recognition that Benjamin praises the work of political artists and of left-wing revolutionaries.  However, at the same time, Benjamin acknowledges that it is not completely up to us.  The forces of history bear upon us, as a debt, and the Messianic is utterly ineffable.  And thus for Benjamin, while we must engage in historical work, the ultimate goal is occluded and as a result we cannot map out a political plan or political program towards our goal.  For Benjamin, we must engage despite the impossibility of the task, and based on this insistence on engagement Benjamin's philosophy must be considered to be political, though decisively a philosophy of political failure [48] .   

How can we fail?

                This inquiry has been asking of the nature of political movement: Where to go?  From where do we start?  Who goes there? And, what is the relationship between moving and wanting?  A further question, which bears importance for this investigation is the question of failure. How can political movement fail? How can we as political agents fail?  This question bears particular importance with respect to the work of Benjamin, a theory that takes loss and failure to be central.  Yet, this question is also of interest and use in the more general sense of negatively delineating the character of successful movement.  Each of the three theorists in question understands political failure in a different way: for Bloch, a failure to discern utopian hope, for Benjamin, a failure to acknowledge loss, and for Lukacs, a failure to recognize a totality of wholeness. 

For Bloch, the success of the movement towards utopia is dependant on a spiritual interiority, any superficiality, the purely sensual, the calculativeness of technical rationality and an inauthentic relationship to the past, is a hindrance.   The metaphor of hollowness constantly appears in Bloch's descriptions of false consciousness and an insistence of an inward fullness characterizes Bloch's articulations of true or redemptive consciousness.  For Bloch, the calfskin [49] with nothing underneath bars the utopian.  Writing against the superficiality of the purely sensual Bloch states, "So what counts is to sense oneself all the way through.  Whoever just listens, and he might be moved at the time, does not even notice…." [50]   Furthering this position, in the context of his critique of Wagner's irrationalism, Bloch writes, "…human beings are consequently (for Wagner) even less able that such parts to act independently.  Rather, they are merely the scenes of action, cheated, ironized puppets in the hand of the all-one false idol and in his play" [51] (my emphasis). Bloch's concern over superficiality and a lack of interiority is not pitted merely at sensual irrationalism but equally against the rational endeavor of Hegelian philosophy.  For Bloch, Hegel makes the error of prematurely identifying the rational with the real.  For Bloch it is essential that a Kantian-like thing-in-itself be acknowledged.  The unknowability of the thing-in-itself prevents against dealing with things merely superficially in terms of what is phenomenonally perceptible.  For Bloch there is an unknowable depth that is essential.  Writing against a completely rational system and for the necessity of an unknowable Bloch states, "For the thing-in-itself…is what moves and dreams." [52]  

For Benjamin political failures result from a failure to recognize and engage with the alienation and loss of our current historical age.  If we do not engage with the past as a site of loss as it threatens to "disappear irretrievably," [53] and if we content ourselves with safe narratives about "the way it really was," [54] if we commit the errors of historicism and fail to live up to the expectations of historical materialism [55] , then we lose the lessons and inspirations that the past harbors.  Similarly, if we fail to acknowledge the dream elements within everyday commodities, we again forgo an engagement, albeit a negative engagement, with the messianic.  It is this negative moment within the encounter with the dream that is the moment of awakening.  With awakening, we realize that we were dreaming, and that in fact the here and now, the awake present, is decisively not the dream.  Benjamin writes of the importance of the dialectic of dream and awakening, ""Where Aragon persists within the realm of dream, here the concern is to find the constellation of awakening." [56]

This same failure finds specific articulation in the distinction Benjamin draws between fascistic aesthetic politics and revolutionary political art.  The fascistic aestheticization of politics, by turning our very own destruction into an aesthetic pleasure, serves to occlude loss and alienation.  Aestheticized politics, like that of political propaganda or advertising, offer a false totality and a false reconciliation.  Communist or revolutionary art, in contrast, pays heed to the rents, fissures, and alienation of historical existence.  Examples include Proust's homesickness [57] and Kafka's princess in a village of foreign tongue. [58]

According to Lukacs the source of political or revolutionary failure is the inability to recognize the totality and is, therefore, the proletariat's failure to become conscious of itself.  He writes, "…the real understanding of a particular phenomenon can be thwarted by the misapplication of the category of totality." [59]   When we fail to recognize this totality we remain within the divisivness of bourgeois consciousness, whereby the empirically given is seen to be fundamentally separated from what 'ought' to be. This separation in turn inoculates genuine political agency.  If we take the empirical and historical as given and fail to recognize our own agency therein, we alienated ourselves from our capacity as historical agents.  Also, this blindness means that we are unable to discern the source of false consciousness, i.e., the objective economic conditions of the class situation.  In other words, without a recognition of the totality the class situation is understood to be something external from consciousness, and hence we fail to appreciate the manner in which the class situation itself effects consciousness.  

In sum, for Bloch, movement towards utopia is barred by superficiality of both pure irrational sensuality and Hegelian style rationality, and by a lack of appreciation for interiority and depth.  For Benjamin, failure, i.e. a recognition of, is in fact precisely what we need.  The problem for Benjamin is the false illusion of success and progress, in lieu of which, we need to focus on an awareness of loss and past oppression.  And for Lukacs, political failure results from a failure to recognize the social totality and the relationships between consciousness and objective political and economic structures. 


Having considered questions of the nature of our goals, their relationship to our desire and to our historical position, the role we can play in achieving our goals, and the manner in which we can fail to realize our goals, we are now prepared to consider the question of teleology itself.  Here this asking into the relationship between movement and goal, serves to summarize the previous questionings but also offers the most conceptual and abstract expression of each theorist's understanding of political movement. While each of the three theorists conceptualizes movement in a manner radically different from traditional teleology, the specifics of their conceptions of teleology—or a-teleology—differ significantly.  Bloch conceptualizes movement towards the goal as an asymptotic approach, Benjamin in terms of discontinuity, and Lukacs in terms of an identity between goal and approach. 

As discussed throughout this investigation, for Bloch there is a fissure between the current historical profane world and utopia.  It is thus that for Bloch human agency is not the engine towards utopia.  In fact, the very structure of causality ceases to apply in the movement towards utopia.  Of this movement Bloch writes, "…[it] represents no application of the category of causality." [60]    Mere means-to-ends comportment is equally inappropriate; rather, the movement towards utopia must be understood as a "secret teleotropism" by which " the human interior and the world's shift together." [61]   The movement towards utopia is less the attainment or focus on a specific goal and more a general direction, a "flow, a current, a direction…guided by the conscience of the Kingdom"[SU, p268-9].  For Bloch the movement towards utopia is not a rational progression towards human goals; rather, it is a more general orientation towards a goal that can only itself be articulated in its attainment.  "We are lonesome, and stand in the dark of an infinite, merely asymptotic convergence toward the goal." [62]  

Although, for Bloch, there can be no causal teleological movement towards utopian, the utopian spirit or the principle of hope is focused on utopia as a goal.  While the radical alterity of the utopia bars against any simple teleos, for Bloch the utopia offers hope and it is precisely this hope that fuels or inspires our movement towards utopia.  The utopia, even as it is radically other, is the source of the utopian spirit and it is this utopian spirit which moves us on towards utopia. 

Through the utopian spirit, or through the principle of hope, the radical alterity of utopia is able to infuse historical life.  The utopian spirit (again, not the utopia, but the spirit that looks towards utopia) can be found in everyday life, in a simple pitcher, in music, and in community.  Bloch argues that we need to tune into the utopian spirit that lives within and around us.  Bloch further argues that this spirit, cannot be accessed via instrumental or causal thinking, but rather is best expressed through art.

For Bloch we are infused with the radical otherness of the utopian spirit.  This spirit or principle inspires, though not causally, our movement towards utopia.  Thus Bloch's conceptualization of the movement towards utopia, offering a non-rational non-causal propulsion, overcomes the problems of crude-utilitarian style teleology.  However, although Bloch does argue against extreme irrationality, his theory of the utopian spirit is still too esoteric, too mystical and ultimately serves to undermine the possibility of human agency.  The secrecy of the "secret teleotropism" is a secret too well kept and hence in the end Bloch's conceptualization of the movement towards utopia, insofar as it belies human agency, is decisively not political.  It may be religious, or spiritual, or mystical, but it is not political. 

Benjamin's theorization of the manner in which we should move to the Messianic is decisively a-teleological.  The current historical and profane age is radically incommensurate with the Messianic and as a result of this incommensurability no linear or causal path between the two can be mapped out.  However, while the Messianic and profane are thoroughly incommensurate, there is nonetheless, a "secret" [63] relationship between the two. 

In an early work, "The Theologico-Political Fragment" of 1920, Benjamin describes the relationship between the Messianic and the profane in terms of two arrows pointing in opposite directions.  While the arrows move in different directions, Benjamin explains that like opposing forces they can repel off, and hence assist, one another.  And thus for Benjamin, "The profane, therefore, although not itself a category of this Kingdom, is a decisive category of its quietest approach." [64]   The Messianic arrow moves forward towards a free and redeemed humanity, the profane, however, must look in the opposite direction, i.e. into the past and towards loss. 

When in the historical and profane age we set our sights on the past, we must focus on a past that is always in danger.  It is necessary that in our historical engagements we recognize, not the past as "it really was," [65] but on the contrary the past as a site of loss —i.e. we must recognize that the past threatens to disappear irretrievably.  It is only in this recognition of loss that we are able to understand the profane for what it is, and this in turn negatively articulates the Messianic.  The radical alterity of the Messianic cannot be positively articulated from within the historical, though through the recognition of an absolute and essential loss within the historical, we are brought to the limits of the historical age, and hence to the Messianic. 

                Many years later, in "The Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940), Benjamin's description of the manner in which we move towards the Messianic is much the same.  Here with the image of the angel of history, Benjamin explains the "secret heliotropism," [66] which moves the historic towards the Messianic.  The angel faces the past, and focuses on the wreckage and loss, but is propelled away from Paradise in the winds of a spurious progress.  Again, it is only in a recognition of loss, i.e., with our sites turned towards the wreckage, that can we discern Paradise.  And thus here as in the "Theologico-Political Fragment", Paradise (or the Messianic) is only ever encountered negatively in terms of our difference and distance from it. 

                The a-teleological directionality of the benjaminian movement towards the Messianic is again articulated in Benjamin's insistence that our political engagements be an organization of pessimism and that they focus on "enslaved ancestors", not the image of "liberated grandchildren." [67]   Only with our gaze focused on loss do we allow for the approach of the Messianic.  The Messianic, radically other than the profane, and therefore ineffable, can only be negatively encountered in terms of our distance from it and hence it is only in the recognition of loss and alienation that the Messianic is offered or available to us. 

                For Benjamin, the "secret heliotropism" or the "inconspicuous" transformation that characterizes the manner in which the historical and the messianic are related, is like the blochian utopian spirit or principle of hope insofar as a offers a negotiation of radical alterity.  However, Benjamin's conception of movement differs from Bloch's in two significant ways, in terms of directionality and in terms of the difference between infusion and interruption.  Firstly, where for Bloch the utopian spirit looks forward towards utopia, for Benjamin the directionality of historical movement must be focused backwards, and on loss.  It is precisely through this recognition of our distance from our dreams that there is an, albeit negative, articulation of the messianic.  Secondly, unlike Bloch's principle of hope, the benjaminian messianic does not infuse the historical, but rather it interrupts the historical.  It was argued above that the infusion of the everyday and historical with the principle of hope is a-political.  In contrast, however, the messianic interruption theorized by Benjamin, still allows for the possibility [68] of political engagement.  The interruption can serve as a check or reminder, which can then function to re-orient practical engagement in the profane. 

As discussed above, for Lukacs modern thought, as exemplified in the philosophy of Kant, is premised on a fundamental rent between man and nature, subject and object, the empirically given 'is' and an ideal 'ought'.  Political teleology insofar as it depends on a separation between action in the here and now, and theoretical goals, is itself fundamentally bourgeois.  Rather than posit and move towards external goals, Lukacs argues that the task at hand is to recognize a social unity and totality, and that this recognition itself is the only possible goal. The goal of political movement, i.e. the class-consciousness of the proletariat, is identically the means with which the goal is to be achieved.  "The ultimate goal is not a 'state of the future' awaiting the proletariat somewhere independent of the movement and the path leading to it…The ultimate goal is rather that relation to the totality, through which every aspect of the struggle acquires its revolutionary significance." [69]   For Lukacs the goal of movement cannot exist outside of historical struggle, rather it must be recognized to exist within the here-and-now.  Our goals are not something we should strive towards but rather they must be something we work through.   "Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round." [70]

Lukacs does not have a conception of Utopia.  This is definitive.  In fact, for Lukacs the very notion of an external utopia, a "no-place" ideal, itself a product of bourgeois false consciousness, is problematic.  Lukacs argues that we should work for the revolution, but this is not without place or outside our grasp, on the contrary it must be understood as attainable.  For Lukacs there is no radically other realm of redemption, the classless society and the revolution are, and must be considered to be, possible. 

Kant, according to Lukacs, epitomizes bourgeois thought.  In particular the Kantian dualism between phenomenon and nouemenon and between nature and freedom [71] exemplifies the divided bourgeois consciousness.  Lukacs describes, "The 'eternal, iron' regularity of the processes of nature and the purely inward freedom of individual moral practice appear at the end of the Critique of Practical Reason as wholly irreconcilable and at the same time as the unalterable foundations of human existence" [72] and later, "…man in capitalist society confronts a reality 'made' by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself; he is wholly at the mercy of its 'laws'…But even while acting he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and not the subject of events." [73]   In bourgeois thought empirical reality is taken to be something given, i.e., the 'is', and it is understood to be separated from ideals or from the 'ought'.  The separation between the 'is' and the 'ought', for Lukacs, serves to undermine human agency.  The ought remains unachievable and so we, human political agents, are restricted to tinkering with an 'is' that is already given.  In contrast, Lukacs argues we must recognize our own agency in the very creation of the 'is'.  The empirically given is human and historical.  Once we recognize that, that which 'is', is a human product, then our agency is asserted therein.  While Lukacs argues that the self-understanding of the proletariat class is the locus of change and revolution, in keeping with the spirit of dialectics, he also recognizes how this self-recognition is bound to particular historical conditions.  The bourgeois class, fundamentally rent, while incapable of achieving self-understanding and the awareness of its identity with objectivity, is nonetheless a necessary precondition.  The proletariat, and the possibility of its self-understanding is historically dependant on the bourgeoisie. The historical situation that is experienced by the bourgeoisies as a crisis is, for the proletariat, a situation in which there is a gathering of strength and a springboard to victory.  This means that the increasing awareness into the nature of society is simultaneously the death of the bourgeoisies and the strengthening of the proletariat. 

Lukacs argues that what is ultimately at stake (in Hegelian terms) is a dialectical approach to a recognition of an identity between the in-itself and the for-itself [74] .  "The self-understanding of the proletariat is therefore simultaneously the objective understanding of the nature of society." [75]   Or, in other words, the task at hand is to recognize the inter-relatedness, the totality, "If change is to be understood at all it is necessary to abandon the view that objects are rigidly opposed to each other, it is necessary to elevate their interrelatedness and the interaction between these 'relations' and the 'objects' to the same plane of reality." [76]  

For Lukacs, then, political movement must be understood in terms an identity between goal and approach.  It is precisely this collapse (within the historical) between goal and the way of approach that makes Lukacs' conception of movement vulnerable to Bloch's critique of Marx. [77] .  The concern here is that in our political movement, we focus our attention to our feet, ensuring that each step is well placed and comfortable, yet with this focus on our feet, our shoes and blisters, we lose sight of where we are going.  Goals can help motivate and direct our historical political endeavors and a wholesale forswearing of goals, goes a bit too far. 


Thinking through the history of philosophy provides insight into the theories presented by Bloch, Benjamin and Lukacs.  Bloch's philosophy, in arguing for a utopian ineffability, bears resemblances to Kant's philosophy, specifically Kant's conception of the thing-in-itself.  Lukacs' philosophy, in contrast, is positioned against Kantian philosophy and bears resemblances to Hegelian thought, in particular the Hegelian move towards the identity of substance and subject.  The difference here can be understood abstractly in terms of the debate over totality and completion.  For Bloch and Kant, there is always something other that cannot be incorporated within human or historical structures.  There is always an excess or a remainder.   On the other hand, for Lukacs and Hegel there is the possibility of a closed-circle completion [78] .  The Hegelian "Absolute Knowing" marks the achievement of the identification of substance and subject and for Lukacs the coming to consciousness of the proletariat marks the identification between the subjective and objective.  Benjamin's philosophy is characterized by a fundamental alterity and simultaneously by a fragmenting and fragmentary identification with this otherness.  It is thus that Benjamin's philosophy, with its conception of interruptions and discontinuity, marks a significant departure from both Kant and Hegel. 

In response to the central question of this investigation, How should we, or can we, move towards our political goals?, it has been shown that each of the three theorists argues against traditional teleological structures.  However, ultimately, only Benjamin's theory marks a significant departure from these traditions and hence only Benjamin's theory offers the possibility for negotiating between the problems and necessities of traditional teleology.  Bloch's theory of the asymptotic, secret teleotropism, annuls political agency, is too mystical and esoteric and thus must be understood not as a conception of political movement but rather as a religious or spiritual theory.  And thus Bloch, failing to appreciate the necessity of practical political work, is too much of a dreamer.  Lukacs' theory —the antithesis of Bloch's— of the coming to self-consciousness of the proletariat and insistence or an identification between goal and approach, suffers from an under-theorization of the goal and of the motivations of historical political projects.  And thus Lukacs, presenting a political program void of dreams and ideals, is without hope, is hopeless.  While Bloch and Lukacs ultimately fail us, they remind us of important aspects of political movement or engagement, i.e. there must be work and there must be hope. 

In the end it is Benjamin's philosophy which bears the most fecund ground for the negotiation of work and hope, dream and reality, loss and presence.  Benjamin argues for a political engagement that, engaged with loss in radically singular "now" moments, can be understood as a work of mourning, i.e. as a struggle to make good on, or deal with, historical loss.  However, Benjamin's focus on loss, if not placed within the context of practical historical projects, threatens as a melancholic attachment to the past.  Benjamin himself does not explicitly argue for how the focus on the past could work within contemporary political projects and thus whether we choose to name Benjamin a mourner or a melancholic, is a task for us.  I have argued that with regards to this interpretative task, Benjamin's philosophy bears a rich potentiality and in the end allows for the possibility for political movement as both inspired by something which transcends the historical, and as committed to political projects within the historical. 


Works Cited:


Benjamin, Walter.  The Arcades Project.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999.  [A]

Benjamin, Walter.  Illuminations.  Schocken Books, 1968. [I]

Benjamin, Walter.  Reflections.  Schocken Books, 1978. [R]

Bloch, Ernst.  The Spirit of Utopia.  Standford University Press, 2000. [SU]

Carey, John.  The Faber Book of Utopias.  Faber and Faber, 1999.

Lukacs, Georg.  History and Class Consciousness.  The MIT Press, 1999. [HCC]

[1] See footnote #19

[2] Carey, John. The Faber Book of Utopias.  Faber and Faber, London, 1999. pxi.

[3] This question will be addressed more explicitly in the discussion of agency. 

[4] Ernst Bloch.  The Spirit of Utopia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 155.

[5] Walter Benjamin.  Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 254.

[6] "Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective body become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto"[R, p192]

[7] Georg Lukacs.  History and Class Consciousness (Boston: MIT Press, 1999) 2.

[8] "We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future…This does not imply, however, that for the Jews, the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter. [I, p264]

[9] Bloch, p3

[10] Ibid

[11] "In the dream in which, before the eyes of each epoch, that which is to follow appears in images, the latter appears wedded to elements from prehistory, that is, of a classless society.  Intimations of this, deposited in the unconscious of the collective, mingle with the new to produce the utopia that has left its traces in thousands of configurations of life, from permanent buildings to fleeting fashions."[R, 148]

[12] Walter Benjamin.  The Arcades Project, (Boston: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999), 464.

[13] Ibid, p462.

[14] Benjamin, 1968, 263.

[15] Ibid

[16] Lukacs, p78.

[17] Bloch argues that Marx is too focused on materiality and hence loses any sense of 'why for' or the 'where to'. Bloch argues against Marx that socialism must not completely purify and sterilize itself of ideology.  For Bloch some articulation of ideology is necessary in order to ensure that material reform is meaningful and meaningfully directed.  Bloch commenting on the lack of ideology within Marxism writes, "…there can be no doubt that the indiscriminate ideology-critical distrust of every idea, without the need to exalt an idea oneself, does not encourage anything brighter"[SU, p244].  Bloch, continuing, comments that material achievements of a socialist revolution require some type of faith, ideology, or belief in order to make the material gain meaningful.  Thus, one could articulate Bloch's point as being, "Marx turns Hegel upside-down, but then we find that walking upside down means that you can't see where you are going'.  Bloch emphasizes his position and the need for a 'reason why', "…Here the economy has been sublated but soul, faith, for which room must be made, are lacking…"[SU, p244]. 

Arguing that our contemporary problems stem precisely from a lack of hope and spirituality, Bloch writes, "…we have become the poorest of vertebrates; whoever among us does not worship his belly, worships the state; everything else has sunk to the level of a joke, of entertainment.  Still we stand here expectantly…no breadth, no horizon, no ends, no inner threshold, presentiently crossed, no kernel, and at the center no gathering of conscience of the Absolute."[SU, p247].  And continuing in this vein, "To find it, to find the right thing for whose sake it is worthy to live, to be organized, to have time: that is why we go, why we cut new metaphysically constitutive paths, summon what is not there, build into the blue all around the edge of the world, and build ourselves into the blue, and there seek the true, the real, where the merely factual disappears -incipit vita nova"[SU, p248]

[18] Aesthetics and Politics (New York: Verso, 1977), p22.

[19] "In the dialectical image, what has been within a particular epoch is always, simultaneously, "what has been from time immemorial."  As such, however, it is manifest, on each occasion, only to quite specific epoch—namely, the one in which humanity, rubbing its eyes, recognizes just this particular dream image as such. It is at this moment that the historian take up, with regard to that image, the task of dream interpretation"[N4, 1]

[20] Walter Benjamin.  Reflections, (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 191.

[21] Benjamin, 1968, 242.

[22] Bloch, 240.

[23] Ibid, 244.

[24] Ibid, 129.

[25] Benjamin, 1978, 181.

[26] Benjamin, 1968, 257.

[27] In his consideration of film and its critical potential Benjamin develops a theory of the distracted state of mind.  Where non-reproduced art with its authenticity, originality, and aura, held the spectator in a state of awe and rapt contemplation, the spectator of reproduced art is distracted.  Benjamin's theory of distraction is a critique or challenge to the subjectivism of modernity.  What is translated as distraction is in German die Zerstreuung.  The root of the word, streuung, means to scatter, spread or disperse.  Thus, here the distracted mind is understood to be fragmented, and as a result bears a porous quality.  With the mind strewn about and fragmented it is now more susceptible to impact of the artwork.  A mind that is focused—not strewn about— is unified and coheres together; this state of mind renders the mind impenetrable, the artwork does not impact the mind or the subject.  A distracted mind is thus more susceptible to external influences whereas the contemplative mind, less affected by the eternal world, is organized only according to the goal-oriented, intentional, concerns of the subject.  Here then reproducible art challenges any conception or possibility of a cohesive and unified subjectivity in so far as it encourages a dispersal and fragmenting of the mind. [27]   The distracted mind, more susceptible to external influence, no longer address the world in terms of its own subjective concerns, but now is capable of a more dialogic, less authoritarian, engagement with the world.   

[28] Benjamin, 1978, 190.

[29] Both the thinker and the flaneur are considered by Benjamin to be practioners of profane illumination.  Thus while the flaneur is distracted, this type of distraction must not be understood as antithetical to thought—i.e., antithetical to instrumental rationality, but not to thought. 

[30] I continue to maintain that in Benjamin's theory there is the potential for a more positive political methodology.  Since for Benjamin the flash-like moment of the dialectic image is the site of revolutionary inspiration, there is both the possibility of an encounter with something radically other, the messianic and the possibility of an engagement in the historical.  For Benjamin when we engage dialectically with the historical, everyday and material there is a negative encounter with the messianic, and this dialectical experience, which interrupts the historical continuum can serve redirect or challenge our projects within the banal.  This potentiality, however is not explicitly theorized by Benjamin.   

[31] While Benjamin does explicitly argue against melancholy ("Left-Winged Melancholy", Selected Writings, 2:424), in so far as he fails to produce any articulation of what to do after we recognize loss, his own success at avoiding melancholia is contestable. 

[32] Rebecca Comay  "Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, and the Politics of Memory", in Nietzsche As Postmodernist.  Clayton Koelb editor.  The State University of New York Press, Albany, 1990.  p27.

[33] Charles Fourier.  Theory of Four Movements.  Cambridge University Press. 

[34] Bloch, 163.

[35] Bloch, 38.

[36] Ibid, 120.

[37] Benjamin, 1968, 202.

[38] Cf. foot note #16 and #17

[39] Benjamin, 1999, 471.

[40] Benjamin, 1968, 257.

[41] Benjamin presents Historicism and Historical Materialism as contraries and understands their positions as follows: Historicism must be taken to task for the following errors: 1. Engaging with the past without the recognition that the past is in danger of disappearing, 2. Engaging with the past via a sense of (false) empathy, 3. Operating under the mis-guided belief that the past can be presented "the way it really was", 4. Siding with the historical victor, 5. Is committed to a belief in homogeneous time and 6. believes in historical progress.  The historical materialist in contrast, 1. Understands the precarious status of the past, i.e., that at every moment it threatens to be forgotten, 2. Engages with the past not with a false empathy but rather with horror, shock, and trauma, 3. Understands that the past appears to particular presents and is neither objective nor stable, 4. Works to brush history against the grain and speak for the history of the oppressed, 5. Recognizes that time is not a homogeneous string of commensurable moments but rather that the temporal continuum can be arrested and that some moments (i.e. dialectical moments) offer revolutionary chance and 6. Does not believe in progress but rather, focused backwards and aware of the essential and fundamental loss of the historical age, recognizes that in contrast history is a pile of wreckage.

[42] Lukacs, 79.

[43] "…consciousness is divided within itself"[HCC, p70]

[44] Lukacs, 69.

[45] Ibid, 2.

[46] Ibid, 6.

[47] Ibid, 7.

[48] I continue to suggest that the positive aspect of Benjamin's philosophy, i.e. our engagement in historical and political work, bears rich potential and is sadly under-theorized by Benjamin. 

[49] Bloch, 2.

[50] Bloch, 120.

[51] Bloch, 154.

[52] Ibid, 158.

[53] Benjamin, 1968, 255.

[54] Benjmain, 1968, 255.

[55] Cf footnote #23

[56] Benjamin, 1999, 458.

[57] Benjamin, 1968, 205.

[58] Ibid, 126.

[59] Lukacs, 152.

[60] Bloch, 176.

[61] Bloch, 32.

[62] Ibid, 177.

[63] Benjamin, 1968, 255.

[64] Benjamin, 1978, 312.

[65] Benjmain, 1978, 255.

[66] Benjmain, 1968, 255.

[67] Ibid, 260.

[68] Again, a possibility un or under theorized by Benjamin himself.

[69] Lukacs, 22.

[70] Ibid, 292.

[71] In "Idea for A Universal History", Kant argues "The history of the human race as a whole can be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about an internally—and for this purpose also externally—perfect political constitution as the only possible state within which all natural capacities of mankind can be developed completely"[KPW, p50]

[72] Ibid, 134.

[73] Ibid, 135.

[74] or (in Kantian terms) a recognition of a relation between freedom and nature

[75] Lukacs, 149.

[76] Ibid, 154.

[77] Cf. footnote #13

[78] Assumed here is the traditional reading of Hegel.  Certainly this reading is contestable, cf. John Burbridge (Owl of Minerva, Fall 1997).